The Hebrew Bible's view of kingship is more democratic than the medieval picture we've inherited, and I believe the offices of the Israelite king and the American president overlap in several ways. Therefore, it is appropriate to turn to the Torah for guidance on a Jewish frame for considering which presidential candidate deserves our vote.
Choosing a King, Choosing a President: Modesty, Faithfulness, and Humility
The Torah speaks to us this week of leadership. Expansive and aspirational, parashat Shoftim outlines the essential features of four branches of governance: judicial and religious, prophetic and political. Israel’s judges must pursue justice, blind to the seductions of bribery. Its priests must take up their duties as a call of service, not a path to affluence. The prophets of Israel, blessed with the divine spirit, must use this gift in the interests of truth. And its kings are to be men of the people, dedicated to the virtues and values expounded in the Torah.
This Torah portion is at once sweeping and succinct, addressing these four areas of leadership but unable to dive deeply into any of them. So it goes for us when we study this portion each year: we seek to focus our attention lest we lose ourselves in the abundance of wisdom contained therein. Our tradition insists that we apply Torah to our own times, and as we stand in the aftermath of the nominating convention of the Democratic National Committee, we may turn to Torah for guidance on framing a Jewish approach to moral political leadership.
The mention of political leadership in a sermon may give some pause, though I assure you from the outset these comments will remain non-partisan. The Torah is deeply political, as this week’s parashah attests, and we do well as Jews to invite its wisdom into our own political thinking.
As a final caveat, I will confess that this d’var Torah is delivered in the masculine gender, following the language of the Torah, the predominant history of the Israelite kingdom, and the current state of affairs. Everything I will say applies to people of all genders even if the Torah didn’t know it at the time.
A relatively short section of this week’s reading discusses the selection of a monarch. While the idea of choosing a king may seem strange at first, we find that Jewish tradition views the kingship as a foundationally democratic office.
14If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” 15you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman.
In biblical tradition, the king is supposed to be among his people. He must be familiar with their common affairs, compassionate to their struggles and needs, and sympathetic to the aspirations of those on whom his authority depends. Though alien to the view of kingship bequeathed to us by medieval Europe, biblical kingship implies proximity, not distance. Any subject can appear before the king, who ultimately should be responsible for and responsive to the populace. This king was not a democratically elected president; let’s be clear. But the roles of the American president and the Israelite king do overlap, and the Torah’s instructions about righteous political leadership can rightly be applied to both offices.
The remainder of this short section outlines three values that the Torah requires of a king and which we might, in turn, demand of our own political leaders. They are modesty, faithfulness, and humility.
First: modesty. The king’s modesty is presented in Deuteronomy (ch. 17) as a necessary check against his tremendous power. The text states:
16[The king] shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Eternal has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”
17And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
Horses symbolize both military might as well as personal glory. A king is expected to protect the land and comport himself with dignity; but flaunting displays of power mocks the integrity of virtuous leadership.
The Torah is concerned about numerous wives because these attachments may distract the king from his public duties. Moreover, as the Talmud elaborates, a king has so much more power than a commoner that one must assume an imbalance in these relationships. A king should be exceedingly careful not to abuse his position of influence for sexual exploitation.
And finally, the king is entrusted with the treasury of the realm. Should he hoard wealth for his personal enjoyment, he not only betrays the public’s trust but he also sets his course from greed to corruption.
In these three areas, the king’s position brings him tantalizingly close to ill-gotten gain. Only personal character, especially the quality of modesty, prevent routine abuse.
Next, we read of the king’s faithfulness:
18When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching [הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת] written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.
19Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching [הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת] as well as these laws.
The image here is striking. The king is meant to have his own personal copy of the Torah, and study of the sacred text is prescribed as a daily routine. As the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 2:4) explains:
When he goes out to war, he brings it out with him; and when he comes in from war, he brings it in with him. When he sits in judgment, it is with him; and [even] when he reclines to eat: it is there facing him.
The king is not a scholar, absorbed in his books. Rather, the Torah accompanies him wherever he goes – on the battlefield, in the court room, and even as he dines. The Torah is a symbol of wisdom and of the promotion of life itself, and leadership that is faithful to its values is worthy of divine favor.
Which brings us to humility.
20Thus [the king] will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction [הַמִּצְוָה] to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.
Deuteronomy is as clear-eyed as any of us about the allures of power and privilege. Haughtiness, explains the medieval commentator Abraham ibn Ezra, is a manifestation of being חָפְשִׁי מֵהַמִּצְוֹת, “above the law.” The Torah insists that the king is a human being, as flawed as any other, and to execute his duties diligently and morally, he must strive ever to remember that he’s no better than anyone else. Humility, tragically absent in leader after leader in Judaism’s long history, is essential to respectable leadership.
These are the qualities the Torah urges us to seek in our leaders: modesty, faithfulness, and humility. Our ancient ancestors had relatively little say in who their leaders would be; our situation is very different. As we consider the presidential campaign as well as numerous state-wide and local political contests, the Torah urges us to promote candidates who best exhibit these essential qualities.
Can we be sure that our choice is the right one? Rarely. No one is perfect, not even Israel’s greatest rulers and sages. And though Deuteronomy dedicates these seven verses to the qualities of a righteous king, it devotes chapter after chapter to the moral behavior of “regular people” like all of us. Indeed, even as parashat Shoftim addresses judges, priests, and prophets alongside the potential king, it addresses each of us as well. We are a nation of priests, entrusted with executing justice and charged to heed the moral truth that calls to us in the divine voice. The prophet Samuel’s warning about kings is true: they will inevitably disappoint us if we invest them with all our hopes and dreams for a better future.
And so it is up to us, ultimately, to take responsibility for the virtuous behavior we seek also in our leaders. תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם יְיָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, our Torah portion proclaims—“You shall be wholehearted with the Eternal your God” (Deut. 18:13). As the havoc of election season swirls around us, let this be firm footing beneath us. And may the leaders we “enthrone” bring the values of modesty, faithfulness, and humility to their service of the people.
 Cf. Isaiah 31:1.
 Cf. BT Sanhedrin 21b.
 השתא דאמרת לו לדרשה לֹא יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ נָשִׁים מאי דרשת ביה למעוטי הדיוטות (ibid.). See Steinsaltz’ commentary: “That usage of “for himself” serves to exclude ordinary people, to specify that only the king is restricted from having many wives, but a civilian may marry as many women as he wants, provided he can support them financially” (ad loc.).
 Cf. 1 Samuel 8:14-17. Compare this passage also to the depiction of Samuel’s sons, who were notoriously corrupt: וַיִּטּוּ אַחֲרֵי הַבָּצַע וַיִּקְחוּ־שֹׁחַד וַיַּטּוּ מִשְׁפָּט, “they were bent on gain, they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice” (1 Sam. 8:3)
 Cf. Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Deut. 17:20.
 1 Sam. 8:11-18.
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